|The LookOut columns
|What I Say
"A strong city manager form of government"
By Frank J. Gruber
Last week, just after the Congress of the United States played its annual game of debating whether to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage and just before the same clowns performed their annual circus about whether to amend the First Amendment to save the flag from desecration, the City Council of Santa Monica actually applied itself to a serious matter of amending the local constitution -- the City Charter -- to improve government.
You see why I like local politics?
Local politicians take themselves and what they do seriously, but since what they are usually dealing with seem trivial to non-locals -- let's take the height of hedges as Exhibit A -- they often look foolish.
National politicians take themselves too seriously, and since they are usually dealing with matters of huge importance -- war and peace, the economy, civil liberties -- they are foolish.
What the City Council did was to approve in concept amendments to the City Charter that City Manager Lamont Ewell proposed to give him and future city managers more control over operations. (see story)
The most important change, if the voters approve, will be to turn department heads into "at will" employees. Instead of having civil service protection, they will serve at the discretion of the city manager.
Making department heads more like a city manager's "cabinet" will be good for Santa Monica. I say that even though I seem to have a different view of city staff and its performance than that of many people in Santa Monica.
A lot of Santa Monicans have complained over the years that staff has too much power and that staff thwarts the will of the public. This attitude peaked in the outright hostility of the Planning Commission toward planning staff between 1999 and 2003.
I first became aware of these suspicions about staff about fifteen years ago when I was on the board of directors of the Ocean Park Community Organization. The issues back then that OPCO concerned itself with included the Civic Center Specific Plan, the new elementary school at Los Amigos Park, and Project New Hope (the apartments for HIV-positives on Ocean Avenue).
Fellow board members such as Laurel Roennau and John Bodin, as well as other anti-change activists they worked with from around the city such as the late Merritt Coleman, were always railing against "staff" and how staff was their great obstacle. I was new to local politics and, to be honest, I had never given two thoughts about who worked in City Hall and what they did.
But when I did start attending meetings and paying attention to the political process, I was mystified. I was never able to locate this imperial and imperious staff I had heard so much about. Instead, what I saw were staff members who were deferential to a fault. They were well-trained professionals, who were supposed to know something, but you could rarely get an opinion out of them. The public was always right and nobody wanted to be yelled at.
It was obvious to me that one of the reasons staff hired so many consultants was so that someone else could explain the real world to the public and to City Council and to commissions that wouldn't otherwise take staff's word for anything.
Some will argue that this is all a passive-aggressive ruse, that in fact staff-supermen hide behind Clark Kent disguises to use Lex Luther tactics to destroy the city (or whatever), but I don't buy it. What I see is that staff, instead of trying to push its own agenda (when it may have one, which in my experience is rare), is 99 percent of the time trying to predict what will make the Council happy.
Unfortunately for staff, the Council has the habit of changing its mind. And then staff gets blamed for making proposals consistent with the Council's instructions, which, when confronted with a few angry residents, Council then decides are inconsistent with the public's will. This happened in the past few years, to cite just a few examples, with respect to downtown design guidelines, Santa Monica Place, and the updates to the land use and circulation elements of the general plan.
I don't mean to say that staff has been entirely passive. In the general plan update, for instance, planning staff tried to design a process that would encourage and gather more input from residents than what the City gets from the usual suspects. They used polling for instance, and focus groups, to gather opinions from residents who don't have the time, inclination, or need to participate in planning workshops, commission meetings, and Council meetings.
But as soon as a council member -- Ken Genser -- expressed some reservations about these methods, you never heard much more about the data they generated. Data that ran contrary to what the usual suspects wanted everyone to believe about public opinion.
Obviously staff has a lot of power over the budget and operations. But it's still the politicians who set the priorities. To mention hedges again, it was the Planning Commission and the City Council that made code enforcement a higher priority, not staff.
So I am in favor of giving the city manager control over department heads because I believe that if department heads are part of a team that has a leader, and if that leader is accountable to the City Council, so that he or she has an interest in defending what his or her department heads do, then staff, from city manager down, might actually articulate a philosophy of governing that includes a serious and proactive look into the future of Santa Monica.
And that will be one more reason why Santa Monica is governed better than the United States.
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